I’ll say this for 2020: It sure encouraged me to read more than usual. And I read some really great books in the year that just ended. Here’s my list of favorites…I’ll try and describe them well enough that you’ll know whether you’ll be interested too.
Confronting Christianity: Twelve Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. Rebecca McLaughlin
For years, my go-to book for anyone who thinks Christianity is intellectually ridiculous–or any Christian who struggles with doubts about our faith–has been The Reason for God, by Tim Keller. I now have a second book for that situation. McLaughlin is a terrific writer, and does not shy away from the core objections people have about biblical Christianity–in other words, she delivers on her title. The fact that she was born in England (a substantially less religious country than our own) combined with her relative youth makes this book a great companion piece to Keller’s masterpiece. Bonus: If you buy the audiobook, McLaughlin narrates herself, and her accent is lovely. The chapter titles reveal the twelve questions at the heart of the book:
Chapter 1: Aren’t we better off without religion?
Chapter 2: Doesn’t Christianity crush diversity?
Chapter 3: How can you say there is only one true faith?
Chapter 4: Doesn’t religion hinder morality?
Chapter 5: Doesn’t religion cause violence?
Chapter 6: How can you take the Bible literally?
Chapter 7: Hasn’t science disproved Christianity?
Chapter 8: Doesn’t Christianity denigrate women?
Chapter 9: Isn’t Christianity homophobic?
Chapter 10: Doesn’t the Bible condone slavery?
Chapter 11: How could a loving God allow so much suffering?
Chapter 12: How could a loving God send people to hell?
The chapter on homophobia is especially insightful, as McLaughlin shares her experiences as a same-sex attracted woman who has chosen to live according to biblical sexual ethics. I would recommend this highly to if you want to think through the intellectual objections to Christianity, or if you’re trying to engage someone who is skeptical of our faith. Follow her at @RebeccaMcLaugh or check her website: https://www.rebeccamclaughlin.org/
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. Erik Larson
Imagine being a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. Your beloved father has just reached his lifelong goal of becoming your nation’s Prime Minister…just as World War II begins. For teenager Mary Churchill, that was reality in 1940. There have been countless books written about the War, and almost as many written about Winston Churchill. But Larson, an author who writes nonfiction that reads like a novel (my favorite Larson books are Isaac’s Storm and Devil in the White City), stays focused on the personalities of Churchill, his family and close friends, and what life was like for them in that pivotal year. They lived in a city that was bombed every night for months on end. They faced excruciatingly difficult decisions every day. They grieved the deaths of friends and neighbors that seemed to mount with each passing day. They wondered when the United States would join the war effort; and whether their tiny island nation could hold out against the Nazi onslaught until then. But they also had dinner parties and dances, fell in and out of love, dreamed, hoped and prayed. Larson makes us participants in the story. I finished the book feeling immensely grateful to the Churchills and all of the English people for standing up against tyranny alone for as long as they did. This is a gripping read even for people who don’t love history.
Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. Tara Isabella Burton
This is not a Christian book (although its author is a fairly new Christian herself). But its subject is of great interest to Christians: We all know the polls say Americans are becoming less religious than ever, but Burton says that’s not necessarily true. They’re simply finding meaning, purpose, community and ritual in new places. Those are the four things Burton says Americans traditionally found in organized faith–and her book does a great job of recounting the religious history of our nation in a way I hadn’t seen it presented before. But today, the “spiritually remixed” (who include “spiritual but not religious” types as well as “nones”) are finding meaning, purpose, community, and ritual in the strangest places: Alternative religions like wicca, non-religious entities like self-care and fitness companies, and especially politics. Toward the end of her book, Burton names the three fastest-growing religious movements in America today, and two of them are political: The Social Justice Movement on the Left, and Atavism on the Right. Sad to say, most churchgoing Christians don’t know many of these people, and they know few of us beyond what they see on cable news or social media. Burton’s book is an interesting read, but more importantly, it helps people like us understand those who are drifting (or, in some cases, galloping) away from our faith.
The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christians with the Gospel. Dean Inserra
Strange Rites and The Unsaved Christian made an interesting combo for me. One gave me insight into the minds of thousands of my neighbors who want nothing to do with organized religion. The other was a reminder that thousands more of my neighbors remain “religious,” without any real relationship with Christ. That is especially true in the Southern United States, and Inserra, who pastors a church in Florida, helps us see the different types of “Unsaved Christians.” They range from the CEO (Christmas and Easter only) types, to people who attend churches where the Gospel is not preached, to cultural Christians for whom Christianity is all rolled up in citizenship and patriotism. You will recognize many of your friends, neighbors and relatives in this book. It will make you uncomfortable at times, but it will expand the number of people you begin to pray for. And Inserra has some great conversation starters and other tips to help us reach people who think they don’t need the Gospel.
Peace Like a River and Virgil Wander. Leif Enger
I have a new favorite novelist. For several years, I have heard about this book, had intentions to read it, but this year, I finally did it. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Enger’s first novel, written in 2002, is narrated by 11 year old Reuben Land, an asthmatic boy in 1950s Minnesota. When his older brother becomes the focus of a criminal manhunt, Reuben, his father and younger sister strike out on a cross-country journey to try to find him before the authorities can. This is not a “Christian book,” in the sense that it’s not written specifically for a Christian audience. But it is a book about people of profound and authentic Christian faith, and that is something I haven’t seen in any other literary novel since Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series. The father, Jeremiah Land, is especially memorable. A man of such powerful faith, he can literally work miracles, he nevertheless lives as a simple high school janitor. Little Reuben adores his dad, but has to wonder sometimes why he can heal a local bully, but not his own son. Of course, God’s people have been asking questions like that about our Heavenly Father since the Garden.
Peace Like a River reads at times like a pulse-pounding thriller, and at other times like a sweet family memoir. It has moments of tenderness, and gritty images of life’s deepest evils. Enger has that rare ability to write beautifully without seeming like he’s showing off. When I finished this book, I was immediately sad that it was over.
Virgil Wander was written just two years ago (Enger has only written three novels; I picked up his middle book, So Brave Young and Handsome, at the library yesterday). It’s quite different from his first book. Whereas Peace Like a River had a central question that drove the plot along (Will the Lands find Davy before the authorities do, and what will happen to him?), Virgil Wander has a plot that is much harder to define. It is also set in the present day, and the faith of its characters isn’t nearly as key to the story as in Peace. Still, I enjoyed it just as much. Virgil Wander is the name of the book’s narrator, a middle-aged movie theater owner in a one-stoplight town in northern Minnesota. The book starts with Virgil surviving a terrible car crash, an event that leaves him with some strange after-effects; he can speak, but can’t remember adjectives. His memory is mostly fine, but some of his friends and surroundings seem strange to him. He refers to his former life as “the previous tenant.” In other words, this is a man who has a second chance at life.
That summary makes the book sound like countless other plots, from A Christmas Carol to the movie Family Man. In reality, the book is more focused on the forsaken town where he lives, a place so known for heartache that their local festival is called “Hard Luck Days.” As Virgil tries to renew his own life, we get to know other people who live there–the widow of the baseball star who mysteriously disappeared, the former banker who got elected sheriff and wishes he hadn’t, the mayor who is obsessed with Bob Dylan, the teenager who starts surfing the icy waters of Lake Superior, the loser who wants to win his wife back, and the little boy determined to catch the huge fish he is convinced killed his dad. There’s also a scandalous local celebrity who has recently come home, and a mysterious kite-flying stranger who seems to draw people like a pied piper. I know “quirky small town” has been done an infinite number of times before, too. But Enger makes each of these characters so real, you find yourself yearning to know what happens to them, and to their community. In the process, you might feel inspired to seek a little renewal of your own.
Okay, this isn’t a book. I just have to share my experience with this series. Let me start with this: I don’t enjoy most “faith-based” movies. I confess I am a bit of a movie snob. Faith-based movies tend to be made with the best of intentions, but they just aren’t made well. So when I heard about a series about the life of Jesus that is entirely funded by donations, that would only be available on an app on one’s phone, tablet or computer, I figured it wasn’t worth my time. After numerous friends–some of whom are movie snobs too–kept telling me how good it was, I relented and gave it a try. Man, am I glad I did.
Most movies about the Bible fall into one of two categories: 1) The Hollywood approach, that changes the story to fit a particular agenda, or 2) The devout approach, in which the characters only say and do the things mentioned in Scripture. It’s hard to criticize this second category; The Jesus Film is a good example. These films have their purpose, but they don’t really work as movies. The Chosen is different. It presents the people of the Gospels in a realistic way. They speak in contemporary language. This takes some getting used to, but it works because it makes the viewer feel a part of the drama. These aren’t just characters in an old story, they are real people. The series presents things that aren’t mentioned in Scripture, but which are plausible: Simon and Andrew being worried they will lose their fishing boat because of debt; Matthew hiring a man to pull him in a wagon through the marketplace so that the people won’t spit on him; the woman at the well asking her latest husband for a divorce so that she can get remarried. Because these ideas aren’t in the Bible, we don’t know exactly how they will turn out. And since the characters are well-written and exceptionally well-acted (This is the best portrayal of Jesus I have ever seen), we care deeply about their stories. Every episode featured at least one moment that moved me deeply, but there is also genuinely funny humor.
I highly recommend The Chosen. Season Two should be out soon, and I can’t wait. Check out their website here: The Chosen.
Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Dane Ortlund
What can I say about Gentle and Lowly? If you only read one book on this list, read this book. If you struggle with feelings of inadequacy, or you fear that your life is disappointing to God, read this book. If you know someone who thinks of the God of the Bible as angry and vengeful, read this book…and then share it with them. If you just want to know Jesus better (trust me, you do), read this book.
The title is based on Matthew 11:28-30. Ortlund’s premise is that to really know someone is to discover their heart; Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30 reveals that His heart is “gentle and lowly.” The rest of the book shows that this truth is not a fluke; it’s found throughout the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments. Over and over again, in simple, memorable prose, he shows us that God doesn’t just tolerate us…His heart is for us. He delights in us. Ortlund is not following the path of some authors who ignore or downplay the passages about God’s wrath and our sin. Instead, He shows how the entire Bible points to a God who is unfailingly on our side. Let me say it again: Read this book. Thank me later.